I am a brain in a jar. Sometimes children tap on my jar, and ask their mothers what I am. Their mothers tell them that I am a brain in a jar. The children then ask what a brain is. And the mothers tell them that a brain is what you use to think. “It’s inside your head,” they say, sometimes tapping on the child’s skull.
Usually the children ask why this brain is in a jar, and not inside someone’s head. Some moms just say, “I don’t know,” and move on, but others try to explain, saying perhaps it once was, but now it is being preserved here in this jar, so that others can learn what a brain looks like. I myself have learned that seeing me seems to make people uncomfortable. From their reactions, I gather that I must look very unusual. But having never seen myself, I wouldn’t know. I probably wouldn’t even know I was a brain in a jar if I didn’t hear the mothers telling their children so.
I am what happens when you put a brain in a jar. I don’t know how long I have been a brain in a jar. It feels like a long time. I think I used to be inside a body. I think sometimes I even have memories: for instance, a pattern of carpet, the sound of a distant train, and a cat drinking milk. I think I used to have more memories, but they are fading now. The fluid I am being preserved in has grown thick and cloudy over time. I feel very soggy, and it’s sometimes hard to think, which is unfortunate since my thoughts are all I have.
Once I thought I heard a mother telling her child that I was a damaged brain in a jar, and that I was on display so people could see what a damaged brain looks like. This frightened me, and I began to wonder if it was true. I also began to wonder how I could even hear the mothers talking, since, being only a brain in a jar, I don’t have ears. It was then that I began to worry that the voices I was hearing weren’t real. And then I got very, very scared.
Sometimes I wonder what you’re thinking about when you see me. Maybe you’re wondering what I’m thinking about. Maybe you’re thinking about your own brain, and what you would do if it was in a jar. Do you think you’d be worried about some over-zealous child tapping on your jar so hard that it falls and shatters on the ground? Wouldn’t it be jarring to lose your jar?!
How would you know where you end and everything else begins?
On Christmas I went to the movies and, during the excessive barrage of trailers and commercials, I noticed a trend. First the new Batman featured Kurt Cobain’s isolated vocals from “Something in the Way.” Then Morbius had Jim Morrison’s isolated vocals from “People are Strange.” I thought, oh 27 club isolated vocals are “in” this year. Then the trailer for Buzz Lightyear had David Bowie’s isolated vocals from “Starman,” so I thought ok, it’s dead rockstars in general. But then there was a trailer for some stupid murder mystery called Death on the Nile, featuring an a capella version of Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth.” Apparently Hollywood just thinks isolated vocals are spooky and atmospheric. They’re not wrong, it’s just weird how EVERY trailer has it now.
“Isolated vocals for isolated people,” I said out loud as I sat alone in a movie theater on Christmas. Isolation’s on my mind, as it must be for everyone. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the long-term psychological consequences of the traumatic last two years might manifest in the coming decades. Lately I’ve been reading about Harry Harlow’s mid-20th century experiments, in which monkeys were isolated in a glorified torture device he poetically called “the pit of despair.” Harlow noted that the animals emerged from this extreme isolation in a state of emotional shock characterized by “autistic self-clutching and rocking.” These monkeys were later incapable of group interaction or rearing their children, even leading to attempted filicide in some cases.
Harlow went to unethical lengths to prove something very obvious: social creatures can be destroyed by destroying their social connections. In another sadistic experiment baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and given a substitute “mother” made of wire and cloth. Sometimes it feels like we are the subjects of a similar experiment in isolation. The cell phone is the substitute mom, with instagram even functioning as a recreation of the mother’s gaze (“Mom! Watch me, mom!”). Jasun Horsley (who I’ve only socialized with through a screen) calls this the “Big Mother” theory.
On a related, and somewhat personal note, no one in my family called on Christmas. But I don’t take that personally anymore. My alcoholic-recluse Dad hasn’t even had a phone since 2008. Later in the day, I did get a text from my sister: “Merry Christmas Gibby.” And finally my Mom texted, but only after I texted her first. It’s funny how an actual phone call is tantamount to an act of violence these days. Would Alexander Graham Bell be surprised to know that we walk around with his invention on our person, but live in terror of it ringing? Anyway, I don’t take it personally. No one calls anyone. And my family members don’t call each other either. We’re a family that’s not family anymore. Maybe this relates to a larger breakdown in which the alienation of self-reliance and individualism has reduced the family to a collection of individuals with weakened bonds…
So I spent Christmas at the movies, formerly a space for communal bonding, where I noticed something else amongst the ads before the feature: a bizarre commercial featuring Matt Damon walking through a kind of virtual museum of exploration and conquest, as he waxes philosophic about winners and losers. In the first exhibit a lone explorer walks away from his galleon, then we see a lone climber on a treacherous mountain, and then what appears to be a single Wright brother flying his plane. Only when we get to the fourth exhibit, featuring a club full of young, gender-neutral “mere mortals just like you and me” as Damon puts it, do we see any kind of group. By this point, I’m thinking, What the fuck is Good Will Hunting selling? Finally he comes upon one last exhibit featuring a multi-ethnic group of astronauts, symbolizing tomorrow’s brand of intersectional imperialism. “Fortune favors the brave,” Damon says as we look out over Mars and a logo appears for crypto dot com. That’s the big reveal: Matt’s selling crypto.
In my still-unpublished book Notes from the Uncanny Valley, I ask, “Is bitcoin a decentralized virtual currency for a utopian future? Or a Ponzi scheme for a dystopian present?” If I were a gambling man, I’d bet on the latter. But I can’t afford to gamble. As the fine print at the end of the commercial reads, “Trading cryptocurrencies carries risks such as price volatility and market risks. Before deciding to trade cryptocurrencies, consider your risk appetite.” The phrase “Risk Appetite” is a funny one, since one might be hungry for food but not have the appetite for risk needed to afford food in a digital economy.
There’s a cruelty to Damon’s cringey commercial coming at the end of a year where a billionaire space race played out before billions struggling to get back to work and rebuild some semblance of normal. This year also saw SpaceX’s Elon Musk hosting Saturday Night Live, an event some felt was a ploy to boost Dogecoin (also worth noting that during his monologue he came out as Aspergerian). And then the year ended with Musk getting a stupid hair cut for his Time Magazine Person of the Year photo shoot (looked a bit like Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element (the future’s always full of stupid haircuts)).
No doubt related, the Netflix Christmas release Don’t Look Up, while not as clever satire as Network and not as funny as Dr. Strangelove, did have a very amusing character in Peter Isherwood, a creepy tech billionaire no one is allowed to make eye-contact with. Isherwood bears a striking resemblance to transhumanist and Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who blasted off the old-fashioned way. I have a feeling as Jeff Bezos’s costly struggle to live forever gets more absurd, and Musk’s antics on the way to Mars become more erratic, and more and more rich and powerful people are exposed as sexual predators, audiences are going to love hating characters like this.
What can we make of the massive efforts being made to change the shape of the collective hallucination that is money? The idea is that it only works if enough people get on board. There were once rumblings that the average Joe investing in crypto signaled the coming of the bubble-burst, but now this is being encouraged. Another scenario might be that the bubble just continues to inflate, pushing hyper individuals like Musk and Damon higher and higher, until it pops, shooting them into space, and leaving everyone else here on Earth to rot. So, do you have what it takes? Damon asks. Are you brave enough to invest in crypto?
By the time all this, and more, plays out, the long term effects of lockdown isolation will be inescapable for the fully grown pajamas-and-limited-eye-contact generation. It seems likely that the ability for community-function will be seriously diminished by then. It already is… I think of those pop songs stripped of their communal creation, no longer a cohesive, collaborative group statement, now just expressions of alienated hyper-individualism. And I think of those poor monkeys. And I think of my poor broken family.
I also think of this excerpt from my book (Did I mention, it’s still unpublished?):
What have humans been running from all this time? What were those early splits in Africa and the middle east really about? It’s as if the fall from Eden never ended, we’ve just been gaining velocity the whole time, desperately trying to outrun the weight of our own history. In recovery circles there’s something called the geographical solution, where one attempts to escape their addiction problems by changing locations. But of course, everywhere you go, you’re always there. Dissociation must be the original geographic cure: the mind’s way of running away from itself.
Cut to me alone in a movie theater on Christmas. “I saw a film today oh boy,” sings John Lennon, alone and ghostly without the music.
Coming to a Plato’s Cave-In near you.
**I hope you’ve enjoyed my contribution to the confessional economy. Sharing is daring, and I hope fortune favors my bravery. Please like, share, comment, message, review, and subscribe. If I don’t get validation, I may start posting thirst traps.**
On Thanksgiving—actual Thanksgiving—the building is eerily quiet. The office is dark. The staff are all at home with their families. I go for a walk outside, where the breeze blows cold. The stores are closed, and the sidewalks and park are empty. I sit down on the bench below the American flag whipping in the wind, and watch the pigeons shuffle about, as the faraway silence moves through me in strange, ethereal waves, surrounding my mind in a cool vapor of unreality.
I think of the old Twilight Zone episode where a man finds himself alone in an empty town, with no memory of who he is, or how he got there. Evidence in the form of a lit cigar in an ashtray and a jukebox left on, indicate that the town was recently inhabited, but as he wanders around he finds not a soul, and begins to suspect he’s dreaming. By the end of the episode, paranoid that he’s being watched, the man is running through the streets screaming, “Where is everybody?” When he pushes a button at the crosswalk, it’s revealed to be a panic button, and the man is seen in an isolation booth being observed by men in uniform, who then break him out of what was only a sensory deprivation-induced hallucination. This isolation experiment was a test of his fitness as an astronaut in preparation for a long, lonely trip to the moon.
Having aired a couple years before Ham the Astrochimp survived his launch into space, and a decade before human astronauts finally reached the moon, this episode is now a remembered anticipation of future space travel. It has proven oddly prescient about the isolation and loneliness of modern life though. Also, with growing internet conspiracy theories about the moon landing, there’s a sense that the event was a kind of collective hallucination. I wonder if anyone’s ever dreamt about waking up to discover they’re the only person on Facebook.
Today, the moon is alone in the big blue sky, plain and striking, full and luminous. I tilt my head back further, and watch the flag above me rippling against the sky. Assuming the lunar landing wasn’t fake, did you know the American flag Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted on the moon is no longer American? Exposure to harsh ultraviolet sun rays has long since bleached the flag white. Instead of a claim staked by a conquering nation, now the flag appears to signal surrender to aliens. I close my eyes and picture in my mind, the white flag on the moon, hanging eerily still against the black sky.
The wind picks up, sending a chill through me, and I decide to make my way back home. At the crosswalk, I wait for the light to change, even though there are no cars coming. I press the panic button, but the observers of this experiment, if they exist, do not intervene. Across the street, parts of the red “Don’t not walk” hand have been covered by black tape, so that it appears to be giving the middle finger.
November is a sleepwalker through the hallways of my mind. In my drowsy but lucid way, I observe the days slowly passing with a dull ache, as though a glacier of blackness were cutting through me. Like faces on the street, they disappear, one blurring into the next, becoming one day, one face, and then lost to deep night. The winter clothes have been pulled from the back of the closet, where a moth has been surviving on large patches of wool, leaving the left side of my chest exposed and cold. A smoker across the street tosses his cigarette and I watch him slowly stub it out, as though he were taking morbid pleasure in thoroughly extinguishing the last glow of autumn. The elm trees have been picked clean, and their jagged bones stab the gray November skies. Without the foliage, the people in the building across the street can see inside my window. Do they see the scribble chart plastered on the wall? Do they hear my thoughts?
Each day is more night than day, and each night is more night than the last. In this growing darkness, a moth, perhaps the same one that’s been feeding on my clothes, flutters against the computer screen, breaking my trance. Stranger bats her paw against the screen, but the moth dodges the attack. I’ve seen it all on this screen: a rat carrying a slice of pizza, baboons in a zoo reacting to magic tricks, a headless robot running an obstacle course, and a bonobo chimp in a gorilla mask chasing another chimp around a cage. Tonight I saw the saddest thing I’ve ever seen on this screen: two sexbots thrusting against each other in a deadpan enactment of copulation.
But no matter how strange and exotic the world inside my computer appears, the world outside my window is still the same gray shade of sickness. One day I see two men fighting in the street, another day an ambulance arrives and a chubby woman on her phone runs to the back of the vehicle, pounds on the doors, and tries to get in before it’s even stopped. Some days ago there was another fire drill. There must’ve been a warning about it in the November community newsletter, which I only skimmed before leaving it taped on my door, along with the October newsletter. I’ve been leaving the monthly newsletters on the door to suggest that I’m out of town. That way people are less likely to disturb me. For a while an old woman down the hall would knock on my door to tell me about Jesus and her abusive ex-husband. Another neighbor was going door to door asking for food and soap.
Clarence Pitts didn’t show up to the drill. Apparently he can sleep through a fire alarm but not the Star Trek phasers that no one else can hear. I shouldn’t say that. He’s been pretty quiet the last few days. Knock on wood. Sometimes there will be a few nights with no screaming, but when it rains it pours.
Security barely patrols now. Felix said this would happen with the new budget. My first thought was poor Grayson probably hasn’t taken off his VR helmet since he got laid off, but then I realized he’s probably just swooshing down some other building’s hallways. I considered approaching management and offering to patrol the halls for half price, but have decided to keep working undercover and pro bono. Sometimes as I’m floating down these halls, listening to the occasional TV sounds emanate from the passing apartments, I whisper a little lullaby to my fellow tenants: Take your meds . . . Go to bed . . . Everybody stay in your own head . . .
I’ve caught a cold. Body lightly aching, nostalgic for some distant childhood fever . . . Sitting on the windowsill, wrapped in a blanket, face pressed against the cold glass, watching snow flakes drift endlessly outside. My breath fogs on the glass. This means I’m still alive. Must’ve caught it at group therapy. Guess my boundaries weren’t strong enough to protect against the alien viruses out there. Maybe I got it from Hannah, I think as I stare into the great white abyss outside.
Everyone’s always talking about how Inuit cultures have fifty words for snow. But did you know English-speaking cultures have six-hundred forty five meanings for the word “Run?” It’s true. “Run” has outrun all the other English words. Just as snow was the most important aspect of the Eskimo world—in which a linguistic distinction between thick solid snow and sinking snow meant life or death—“Run” has become the defining word of the English-speaking world. It embodies the speed and spirit of the age. Everything’s always running. And when things aren’t running, there’s trouble.
Machines are running. Trains are running. Cars are running. Everything’s running on electricity. Computers are running. Clocks are running. Tomorrow we will run faster. Time is running out. We’re running out of gas. He’s running for president. Run for your life.
But now I’m running a temperature, and feeling run down, and my nose is running, so I guess I’ll just sit here watching my thoughts run in circles, and writing run on sentences, while I wait for this cold to run it’s course . . . .